Jerome Kern is a young but promising composer, and early on in his career he befriends the now-retired single father Jack Hessler, formerly a composer himself. With his help, Jerome soars in popularity, penning the music for countless well-received productions, and bringing American talent to the forefront again after other countries took hold of the theatrical spotlight...
Till the Clouds Roll By starts off in a way that instantly exemplifies its biggest failing. The first 19 minutes are just random excerpts from a restaging of Showboat! That's right, it takes 19 minutes before the plot actually starts! When it does finally begin, it's good, but I was a bit impatient at that point. Thankfully the story is mostly pretty good, and keeps its bearings most of the time from now on. In fact I actually kinda dig that Kern's friendships/relationships are given more focus than his musical career. It's not glossed over or made to seem unimportant, but just shows that such such things were held in greater esteem by Jerome Kern, or at least this movie's interpretation of him. On that note...
By his own admission when Hollywood producers came to him for ideas, Kern's life was pretty dull, so the writers of this film had to spice things up. The character of Jim Hessler and his daughter Sally are completely made up, which is a shame, and makes you wonder why this is even a biography, but since the movie's mostly well-written (bar an uncomfortable and depressing scene here and there), this is pretty tolerable.
Funnily enough, the film totally ignores the existence of Kern's real-life daughter, who was alive for pretty much the entire duration this movie is set. Also hilarious is who actually took the starring role in Kern's first movie, as opposed to who does in the movie. It left out P.G. Wodehouse too (and Guy Bolton), who surprisingly had a big role to play in Kern's early career. Man, for a prolific British comedy author, that guy sure got around! The more I learned about this the angrier I got, because it turns out Wodehouse wrote the song Till the Clouds Roll By! He wrote the film's namesake, yet he gets the boot! It's even more frustrating when you consider all the made-up characters who had no right being here.
Till the Clouds Roll By is chockablock full of musical numbers, and none of them are songs in the musical film sense, where characters just spontaneously burst into song, rather they're all in-universe numbers, just like in The Best Things in Life Are Free. This works well, but it can have the effect at times of making the songs feel random and kinda unnecessary.
We get an interesting array of performers, from a young Angela Lansbury, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, and more. Everyone does a fine job, and I was pleased to see this many black performers in a mainstream film for 1946. The set design for these numbers is something to praise too. Some look positively stunning!
Finally, we come to the ending-There isn't one! After a certain point, we get another random song, but this time it's followed by another, then another, another, then Frank Sinatra sings Old Man River, and the movie just stops.
The acting is decent all round, with Robert Walker and Van Heflin being serviceable as leads. Something I found odd though is how much the two age as the story goes on. They end up looking positively decrepit, yet there's only been a passage of what mustn't even be 10 years (as evidenced by the daughter's much slower aging), and Kern was only in his 20's when the movie started! Joan Wells is fine as the young Sally, if a bit loud, while Lucille Bremer is good as the grown-up Sally, if a bit unremarkable.
Dorothy Patrick inexplicably has an American accent despite her character being British, which is as hilarious as her introductory scene, in which casual breaking and entering leads to romance. Finally, Judy Garland has a minor role as actress Marylin Miller, which is kind of a depressingly fitting one.
Till the Clouds Roll By probably isn't a movie you wanna watch for historical accuracy, but being an aficionado of Jerome Kern should in no way dissuade you from checking this out, as it's still quite an interesting curio. It's certainly not without its problems, but when said issues involve you sitting down to listen to some swanky jazz-age tunes, then surely your time hasn't been completely wasted...